The Human Impact

Who eats your rubbish?

September 19, 2012

After trekking down the mountainside of reeking garbage in gum boots, our bodyguards took us to the nearest kiosk to buy milk.

It helps to kill the acrid stench that sticks in the back of your throat.

But the experience of visiting Nairobi’s largest dumpsite – sited right in the midst of a sea of corrugated iron-roofed slum houses — stuck in my mind for days afterwards.

Every time I threw away small amounts of food, I wrapped them carefully in a plastic bag.

I could not ignore the horrible fact that my rubbish would be sorted through by many hands, scavenging for something to eat or sell.

DUMPSITE A SOURCE OF FOOD

Dandora’s 30-acre dumpsite is a source of survival for many people living in the surrounding slums.

According to a report released on Tuesday by the charity Concern Worldwide, 10,000 Nairobians make a living from it.

“Over half of those who scour the dump on a daily basis are under 18 and many are even as young as 10 years old,” Anne O’Mahony, Concern Worldwide’s Kenya country director said in a statement.

“Most of these children have dropped out of school to sort out and recycle waste.”

Despite being declared full in 2001, 2,000 of tonnes of rubbish are dumped on the site every day, including hazardous chemical and hospital wastes.

It’s so famous, it even features on a Lonely Planet discussion forum.

“Is it possible for a lone tourist?” asked one woman planning a trip to Kenya.

CORROSIVE CHEMICALS, BRAIN DAMAGE

The dumpsite is easy to find. The Marabou storks circling over it are visible from a distance.

Empty Cadbury’s hot chocolate bottles and old toothbrushes line the dusty path down to the site, hoping for a buyer. I can’t imagine who would buy them.

The two grandmothers we interviewed working on the site had worked there for over 20 years. They spent their days doubled over, collecting plastic bags sold to a middleman on the edge of the dump.

They earned 100 shillings ($1.20) a day which went towards feeding their grandchildren.

One old woman had lost half of her finger after touching some corrosive substance while working on the site.

Concern has called for the site to be closed down.

“The location of the dump for the city of Nairobi in the middle of a dense urban population is unacceptable,” said Mahoney.

“To improve the health of the population the dump has to be closed.”

Their demand is not new.

A 2007 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that half of the children living around the dumpsite had high concentrations of lead in their blood, likely to damage their brains and nervous systems.

Almost half of the kids were also suffering from respiratory diseases.

“Asthma, anaemia and skin infections are by now endemic,” said Njoroge Kimani, author of the UNEP report.

But plans to relocate the dumpsite to a new landfill in Ruai, on the eastern side of the city, have floundered.

Kenya Airports Authority says the new site is too close to the flight path, increasing the risk of bird damage to flights, Concern said.

It seems unlikely that the dumpsite will be closed down any time soon.

Until then, I’ll keep sealing my burnt crusts and rotten fruit in plastic bags for someone else’s lunch.

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